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Book Review

Understanding Music

Understanding Music by Scruton

Philosophy and Interpretation

Roger Scruton.
London & New York: Continuum. 2009. 256 pages.
ISBN-10: 1847065066
ISBN-13: 978-1847065063
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Summary for the Busy Executive: To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Roger Scruton is probably one of the current leading philosophers in aesthetics. Now at the American Enterprise Institute, he also writes on political conservatism (less successfully, in my opinion).

Unlike most philosophers on the subject, Scruton actually knows something about music. He has even composed two operas (no idea whether they've ever been performed). You can't accuse him of naïvté. The Aesthetics of Music (1997) argued for music as something understood metaphorically. In other words, formal analysis of musical "grammar" as well as derivation of meaning through linguistic techniques he contends are insufficient or misapplied. Music may metaphorically be like language, but it works fundamentally differently than language. Indeed, it's notoriously difficult to talk about musical expressive meaning through words. Unlike a poem, for instance, you can't paraphrase a musical passage "in different (or any) words." Yet, for Scruton – and for, I would guess, most listeners – the dictum "Music means nothing but itself" is just plain wrong.

This is partly a philosophy book written by a professional. It's not easy lifting, and Scruton's philosophical prose is pretty "dense" – that is, as obfuscatory as most philosophers. It takes years of training to write so badly. Overall, I found that some parts flew way over my head, some parts annoyed me, and some parts illuminated, setting me thinking in new directions. For that last alone, I found it valuable.

The book divides into two large sections. The first consists of a philosophical investigation of musical understanding. It includes chapters on Wittgenstein and on elements of music: "Sounds," "Movement," "Expression," and "Rhythm." The second part collects some of Scruton's music criticism. As I've said, the philosophy section is fairly heavy-duty. The names "Wittgenstein" and "Frege" (neither of whom I've read first-hand) can freeze me like a deer caught in the rush of oncoming headlights. These seem to be Scruton's go-to references. The citations I've read of those two remind me of Woody Allen's philosophy parodies.

Scruton doesn't altogether escape the charges of "handwaving" or of raising difficulties where few exist. For example, he cites Hanslick's formulation of music as tönend bewegte Formen (forms moved in sounding) and points out that music doesn't physically move. True. Sound vibrates and hence moves, but sound, a constituent of music, isn't music. Nevertheless, this isn't an insuperable objection. Music moves like an argument or a story, from rhetorical or narrative point to point. Even philosophers understand movement in that sense. Movement in all these cases is a metaphor. I can't tell you how many pages Scruton takes to get there, making trips into primary and secondary properties of an event and several other things which I wonder why he included. Exactly how many angels can dance on a head of cabbage? On the other hand, I enjoyed his "Expression" and "Rhythm" chapters, as well as his defense of spatial metaphors ("higher," "lower," etc.) that describe our perception of musical unfolding. His point about rhythm as an organizing musical principle of equal importance to harmony and pitch I think a necessary corrective to the theoretical bias of Schenker and others. His ascription of moral qualities to rhythm, however, thrills me less.

Things pick up in the second part. Scruton's prose becomes downright graceful. He actually writes very well when he's not at his philosophy gig. We get essays on Mozart, Beethoven's Ninth, Wagner, Janáček & Schoenberg, Szymanowski, and Adorno. The Mozart piece strikes me as a bit of a gush, but that's understandable. Scruton quite rightly, in my opinion, points to the mystery of Mozart – the elegant means and solutions for depicting complex states.

What struck me in all these essays is Scruton's tendency to hear music in moral terms. In "Beethoven's Ninth Symphony," he discerns all sorts of messages in purely instrumental movements. Now, I know that music, particularly powerful music, has the ability to let us write little poems in our heads, but I would contend the poems are valid mainly, if not only, for ourselves. It reminded me of some Romantic music criticism. There's a fine defense of Wagner's music ("The Trial of Richard Wagner") from charges of Fascism and anti-Semitism. It comes down to this: while Wagner may have been an anti-Semitic S.O.B., you can't apply this to the music. Critics may point out characters like Beckmesser, Alberich, and Mime as symbols of the Nasty Jew, but they come to this judgment solely on the basis of character traits. Scruton rightly asks, "Who, then, is the anti-Semite?" Occasionally, he makes gratuitous little sideswipes at the hypocrisy of leftists (and not just certain leftists, but all leftists), but, after all, he should know that the left hasn't cornered the market on hypocrisy.

"A First Shot at The Ring" presents an overview of the philosophy of Wagner's masterwork, with plenty of musical examples. I've read most of these points elsewhere, so I probably got less out of this essay than someone to whom it's all new. Even so, Scruton tends to read in way too much, in my opinion. When you begin bringing in the classical economists, I think you may have mounted a hobby-horse. Scruton views The Ring through – no surprise – a conservative lens, but I think it worth pointing out that Socialists and even Marxists have hailed The Ring as the supreme representation of their points of view. Scruton comes closest to the truth, I believe, when he talks about the tetralogy as myths, whose power derives partly from their capacity for openness. He speaks of "seeds" that, dropped into the interlocking imagery of both the Ring's text and Leitmotiven, blossom into different, even contradictory, interpretations. I must say, however, that Scruton reminded me once again of Wagner's debt to Greek tragedy (I think particularly of the figure of Wotan). He also rails against current Eurotrash Rings which transplant the tale to specific historical settings. For Scruton, this is due to Modern intellectuals' unwillingness to confront the sacred. That's as may be. Of course, the directors would reply that they aim to make the story relevant to contemporary audiences. I think what's really wrong with such productions is that by removing the action from mythic space and time, you actually limit interpretation. After all, the myth contains the "relevant" interpretation, as well as others. The power of Wieland Wagner's productions comes from his emphasis on mythic space, while the Chereau version, set in the Victorian era, seems flat and a one-time-only deal. It's largely true of modernist versions of Shakespeare as well.

In "True Authority," a comparative discussion of Schoenberg and Janáček, Scruton distinguishes between authoritarianism and authority. Guess which composer represents what. I love the remarks on Janáček – acute and conveying the dramatic essence of this composer. In general, however, Scruton's references to Schoenberg betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the man's work. At one point, he refers to Schoenberg's serialism as "mathematical," which it surely is not. Although Schoenberg sometimes indulges (like Bach) in numerology, he's no more mathematical than Brahms. In fact, had Schoenberg known basic mathematics, he could have saved himself over a decade of work. Schoenberg didn't arrive at his system in an abstract way. He worked to it as a musician who had brilliantly mastered traditional harmony and counterpoint, disciplines that had knit themselves into his bones. If you really listen to Schoenberg's work and remove from your mind his method (which he seldom strictly followed anyway), you will find all sorts of functional tonal implications. Scruton commits the usual error of mistaking Schoenberg's "system" for Schoenberg's music, as in, for example, his early discussion of a passage from the violin concerto – all het up about the row, while failing to notice the phrase. I put system in quotes, because as a system Schoenberg's is laughably simple, with nowhere near the complexity of tonal grammar. As a student, I sweat blood over semesters of voice-leading, harmony, and counterpoint. I learned the basics of serialism in a week. Of course, I failed to write masterpieces in either language, but it made no sense for me to blame the respective procedures. "A soul, of course, you have to have." Schoenberg had his papal side, without question, but he also said that he never meant his system for everybody. He even put off David Diamond from studying with him because he didn't see why the young American needed it for his own music. "You're the next Bruckner. Why do you want to fool around with this?" Furthermore, he wrote tonal pieces throughout his life. He also made bids for popularity throughout his life. Indeed, he couldn't understand why his later music wasn't as popular as his tonal semi-hit Verklärte Nacht, since he felt the music was all of a piece. Much of the authoritarianism Scruton ascribes to Schoenberg actually comes from his disciples, notably Theodor Adorno. In addition to this, of course, we get the "nobody likes this stuff but phonies" – thanks very much – a slur that could be and has been extended to classical music-lovers in general. Many of the reasons he cites for the unpopularity of Schoenberg apply equally to Janáček. Scruton ties himself up in knots trying to distinguish the genuine audience that loves Janáček from the pseudo-audience that attends Schoenberg concerts – intellectual popinjays like Uchida, Gielen, Rosbaud, Hahn, Ax, and Equilbey. Furthermore, it doesn't occur to him that these aren't exclusive gangs. You won't be blackballed from one composer's club if you like the music of the other.

"Thoughts on Szymanowski," a comparison between Szymanowski and Scriabin, while informative, to me overrates Scriabin's orchestral music and underrates Szymanowski's late period. He also comparatively underrates Szymanowski by focusing on the relatively weak "oriental" period – Symphony #3, Song of the Night, and King Roger furnishing the main case against. If I read him right, for Scruton, Szymanowski's failure is due to his estrangement from traditional values embodied in an idealized Polish folk culture. For me, Szymanowski's failures are due to a failure to find the right notes. Needless to say, I don't always agree with Scruton on which Szymanowski pieces fail. I think a lot more of the Fourth Symphony, for example.

"Why Read Adorno?" asks a great question. I read Adorno to raise my blood pressure, apparently. I find many of his arguments specious and the condescending tone in which they are delivered makes them even less palatable. The Marxist jargon doesn't help. Scruton does a neat job cutting the silliness out of Adorno. On the other hand, he keeps part of Adorno's dissatisfaction with the cheapening of the commercial culture, in that he recognizes that it bears the responsibility for producing a lot of junk. I had a songwriting uncle who belonged to this culture. He specialized in writing songs that got into the market, made a pile of money, and disappeared, as they should have. He made a very nice living. Adorno fails to realize two important points. First, in many cases, popular music filters from the bottom up, rather than is imposed solely top-down. Proto-jazz, ragtime, blues, swing, r & b, and rock & roll all percolated from the bottom. True, they were all co-opted by commercial culture, but they began as genuine popular expression. Within that expression, one found both dross and gems, just as you find them within expressions of Hochkultur. Second, even in the commercial culture, one can discern masters. At their best, Arlen, Gershwin, Berlin, Rodgers, and Carmichael have nothing to apologize for. If Schubert's "An die Musik" is a great song, then so is Arlen's "My Shining Hour," and if Arlen fails to reach that level, you'd have to show me musically why not, without recourse to a socio-political critique.

Scruton also goes after Adorno's attack on tonality. I agree with a lot of Scruton's critique – that atonal, as well as tonal, music has its clichés and that tonal music hasn't played itself out, as shown by composers from Debussy and Mahler down to Higdon and Rosner. However, Scruton then makes the mistake of condemning atonality, and from his remarks, I suspect that he doesn't have a listening understanding of it. I would contend that atonality is not a special case of music. Furthermore, it's not all one thing. However, like both tonality and modality, it takes a good composer to make something out of it. Yes, Berg's Violin Concerto is a masterpiece, but so is Schoenberg's. Fortunately, I'm not the only one who thinks so. Ginastera, Copland, and Stravinsky to my ears don't become something other when they switch from tonal writing to serial writing. I've yet to find anybody who can distinguish the tonal from the serial sections of Agon, for example, without looking at the score, and Dallapiccola strikes me as a very lyrical composer indeed. I don't accuse Scruton of not knowing this music in great detail. For one thing, I have no idea how well he does know it. But I do think he has failed to grasp it as living music. Again, I don't think it's a matter of a death match between tonality and atonality. Rather, I find room for both, one commenting on the other.

For all my complaints, I do realize that I am criticizing my intellectual superior. Scruton has a serious task that he approaches seriously. I've stated my problems with what he has to say, but I couldn't write this long a review without having some real matter to consider.

Copyright © 2011 by Steve Schwartz.